Darren's Top 10 Albums of 2013
I have to say that 2013 was a really great year for music. Looking back at 2012…I was kind of a dick about what came out then, so I’m going to focus on the positives this year. This year was very hard to make a top 10 countdown for, since dozens of the roughly 50 albums I listened to this year were contenders for some sort of recognition. There were solid albums by some of my personal favorites, best albums in years by bands I was growing distant from, and even new artists with impressive debuts. After much deliberation, repeated listening, reevaluation, and lobbying by friends, here are my top 10 albums of 2013.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: Okay, yes, Get Lucky is a good song, but there is so much more to the album than this hit that grew to be overplayed, overcovered, and overremixed. The songs by Daft Punk alone aren’t the remarkable ones here, as the album is rife with guest musicians. The two longest tracks featuring Giorgio Moroder and Paul Williams are meant to show Daft Punk’s influences, and I think are the most impressive of the album. Also I like Julian Casablancas’s cameo on “Instant Crush” since I’m a total fanboy.
Foals – Holy Fire: As stated in my review, Holy Fire starts out with some great, powerful tracks, dies down in the middle, gets you riled up again, and then peters out. That said, the high points definitely make the album worth it, and it’s great to see that Foals can try a less technical rock sound without totally losing their style.
10. Arctic Monkeys – AM
Genre: British indie rock meets sleazy American hard rock with tinges of hip hop
I admit that I had fairly low expectations for AM when it came out. I didn’t get super into Humbug and got even less into Suck It And See. Fortunately, this album again raises the bar for the band, even if it’s not the return to their British garage rock roots so many fans have been clamoring for. There’s a definite American hard rock influence, and I definitely got a Queens of the Stone Age vibe on many tracks (including “Knee Socks,” where Josh Homme has a cameo). The more British-style tracks on the album end up sounding a little out of place, such as “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds,” yet then there are hip-hop influenced tracks like “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” that surprisingly work. Despite giving it only a “good but not great” mark in my review, AM really grew on me and got me right back on the Arctic Monkeys bandwagon.
Standout Tracks: Do I Wanna Know?, R U Mine? Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?
9. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
Genre: Synthpop. I admit it
CHVRCHES are a band that I might have overlooked had their debut album The Bones of What You Believe not generated so much hype. Fortunately, all of their attention is deserved, and CHVRCHES excel at their particular brand of fairly straightforward synthpop. Yes, signer Lauren Mayberry sounds about 12, but her voice does carry the emotional content of the songs well (even if most lyrics are metaphors), and I honestly was drawn to the band primarily for their synthesizer melodies that frequently evoke New Order. Sure, not every song on the album works, and some end up sounding a bit “goofy,” but for the most part the songs walk the line between dancey and frantic and turn out great.
Standout Tracks: Gun, Night Sky, By The Throat
8. Kanye West - Yeezus
Genre: Kanye West
Alright, first I want you to divorce Kanye’s public persona entirely from the music for this. Despite my initial lukewarm reception, Yeezus did grow on me since its release and is one of my most listened-to albums of the year. That and one of my friends constantly lobbied for it. Sure, it has faults – “Guilt Trip” will only appeal to fans of 808s, the beat of “Send It Up” makes it sound like it was only included to be a club single, and the lyrics of “I’m In It” are terrible, even if they do include those jokes about ‘sweet and sour sauce’ and ‘civil rights signs.’ But for the most part, the album has great beats that give it a more serious vibe from the electronic overload of “On Sight” to the glitch of “I Am A God” to the minimalist “New Slaves.” The sampling isn’t bad either, with “Blood On The Leaves” using a refrain from “Strange Fruit” to give the song (about divorce and pregnancy) a peculiar message and “Bound 2” reprising Kanye’s trademark usage of soul samples with his rapping. And lyrically, the songs range from Kanye’s social commentary to introspections of insecurities to his expected braggadocio to croissants. Yeezus may lack the grandeur of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but there’s a certain lure to its scaled back nature that makes it a good album.
Standout Tracks: Black Skinhead, Blood On The Leaves, Bound 2
7. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar
Genre: Indie pop psychedelia heavily influenced by classic rock
After a spate of albums that I was honestly really lukewarm about save for a few select tracks, Lousy With Sylvianbriar seems like a godsend, and maybe that’s why I was so gushing in my review of the album. The album shows of Montreal reprising the more simple, psychedelic folk style the band had back when it was just frontman Kevin Barnes with a guitar, and throws in a bunch of classic rock sounds as well. Over the album you hear traces of The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan in both the guitar parts and Barnes’s voice, yet still get that characteristic of Montreal bass sound and general ‘cutesy’ tone. The band also sticks to their habit of masking really dark or depressing lyrics with happier melodies, such as Barnes stating he’s “a walking mausoleum” or mentioning a mother hanging herself amidst 60s style folk rock. Although there’s a bit of a dichotomy between the mellower and livelier songs (of which I definitely prefer the latter), it’s easily their best release since Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer and is a great album even out of this context.
Standout Tracks: Fugitive Air, Triumph of Disintegration, Hegira Émigré
6. Volcano Choir – Repave
Genre: Mellow yet slightly off-kilter folk
Alright, I swear I didn’t put this on my top 10 just because it’s a Bon Iver band. Though as has been shown, it is hard to talk about Repave without mentioning Justin Vernon’s most well-known project. I wasn’t a huge fan of Volcano Choir’s debut Unmap, thinking it a little too ambient and experimental, but it looks like with their sophomore effort Volcano Choir took a lesson from Bon Iver and made it more accessible and straightforward. Thus, some tracks end up sounding quite a bit like Bon Iver such as “Tiderays” and “Dancepack,” the latter of which has intensity similar to “Skinny Love.” Others however retain Volcano Choir’s debut sound, such as the sparse “Alaskans” and the muddled “Keel.” Still, even these are generous comparisons as Repave occupies a unique space all its own between the two styles. Seriously, “Comrade” up there starts out with Vernon’s falsetto voice and folk sounds before getting into vocoder and synthesizer. That’s neither Bon Iver nor Unmap.
Standout Tracks: Acetate, Comrade, Dancepack
5. Washed Out - Paracosm
Genre: Well I guess it’s mellow electronic with some variati- alright fine, Chillwave
Dropping the word ‘chillwave’ up there may have made you cringe a bit, but hopefully you understand that a musician often categorized into such a seemingly made-up genre is not all pretension and experimentation. Okay, yes, I did name drop Henri Rousseau when I reviewed it, but Paracosm is actually a fairly accessible. The album opens with what can only be described as what I imagine you hear when the pearly gates of heaven open, and from then on you’re immersed in a tropical paradise theme. Songs such as the title track make this very clear by using a lush harp sample, while others like “It All Feels Right” have an acoustic guitar strumming throughout. Most tracks use the synthesizer layers you’d expect from Washed Out (which is really a guy named Ernest Greene), although they too can take you on another world as heard in “Don’t Give Up” and “All I Know.” Greene’s subdued voice sometimes goes from “appropriately mellow” to “incomprehensible droning” at times, yet this is a minor complaint for an album that really manages to pull listeners in with its theme and style.
Reviewed at http://reviewtobenamed.com/post/show/1324 Standout Tracks: It All Feels Right, All I Know, Paracosm
4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Genre: Depressed middle aged indie rock
After the National came out with the excellent High Violet in 2010, they seemed to explode in popularity and appeared in everything from video games to special covers for TV shows. My hipster instinct burned with desire to flee, yet my more sensible music-appreciating side fortunately made the decision to stay and see what they did next. Trouble Will Find Me gave me a release that was part everything I already loved about the National and part new things to love. I must clarify though that “everything I love about the National” means singer Matt Berninger mumbling while drummer Bryan Devendorf plays fast snare-heavy drums, exemplified by “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Graceless” on this album. There are also lyrics like “I have only two emotions/ careful fear and dead devotion/ I can't get the balance right” that are all I could hope for from the band. On the other hand, songs like the grandiose and intense “Sea of Love” and the jazzy/boozy “Pink Rabbits” show the band still have a few tricks left up their sleeve. Some songs turned out a little too minimalist for me, but album proves that the National can jump between styles and energy levels seamlessly. Also I reviewed it here.
Standout Tracks: Don’t Swallow The Cap, Sea Of Love, Graceless
3. Toro Y Moi – Anything In Return
Genre: Chillwave. I regret nothing.
As the first album I acquired and reviewed in 2013, I wasn’t expecting Anything In Return to hold up so well 11 months and almost 50 albums later. Well, this release has really proved resilient for me, as I keep going back to its mellow tracks of sampled loops over hip-hop beats over and over. Songs range from the simple, two-note melody of “Say That” to the multi-layered and Daft Punk-esque “Never Matter.” They tend to lean minimalist, although the real saving grace of the album lies in Chaz Bundick’s (the guy behind Toro Y Moi) expressive voice. Bundick seems to have pulled out all of the stops on this front, and some tracks like “Grown Up Calls” and “Cake” sound more like R&B songs than anything else. Compared to the monotone of Washed Out, the songs have a lot more emotional depth, especially when coupled with lyrics like “I thought you said you won’t ever leave me/what happened to us?” in “So Many Details.” Despite its generally relaxed sound, this is an album that can be either enjoyed in the background or actively and intently listened to.
Standout Tracks: Say That, So Many Details, Cake
2. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Genre: Indie rock with some electronica and calypso
I’m going to try and be concise here despite my review of this album being my longest yet. Reflektor is an album that really grew on me, going from what I saw as a disappointing release to an incredible display of talent. It’s starkly different from previous Arcade Fire albums, as shown in both of its (excellent) singles “Reflektor” and “Afterlife” being electronic and dance oriented, not orchestral. There’s even some calypso sounds on “Here Comes The Night Time,” reggae on “Flashbulb Eyes” and British indie rock on “You Already Know.” However, the sentiment of Reflektor is still very much Arcade Fire. There’s still some of their youthful shouting (see “It’s Never Over”) and a lot of their stone-faced solemnity (see “We Exist”). Lyrically, they almost get into self-parody when Win Butler lets out lines like “is anyone as strange as a normal person?” yet they excel when being less social commentary and more personal. For example, I cannot exaggerate the emotion behind “Afterlife,” especially when they sing “when love is gone, where does it go?” To me, this is easily the best song of 2013. The album is quite the journey, and arguably its 70+ minute length could be trimmed, but if you take the time to listen closely (and even pay attention to all the Orpheus and Eurydice symbolism) you will be rewarded.
Standout Tracks: Reflektor, Here Comes The Night Time, Afterlife
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Genre: Indie rock at its best
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Vampire Weekend? Them? Really? Best of 2013? Are they funny or something? Let me start by saying that I wasn’t expecting this either when I reviewed it, yet no album has been as solid a release as Modern Vampires of the City. The whole album has an incredible number of very strong tracks, very few weak moments, and some of the most clever lyrics I’ve heard from an indie rock band. I was a really big fan of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut and likewise appreciated Contra, and this album surpassed the very high bar I had set for them. It’s more straightforward than both previous releases, though it still keeps the occasional African beat influence on tracks like “Obvious Bicycle” and “Young Lion.” They still have their quirks though, like a synthesized harpsichord taking center stage on “Step” while Ezra Koeing sing-raps and some of the fastest singing I’ve heard over the galloping beat of “Worship You.” The album’s lyrics show the band are still their nerdy selves, doing things like namedropping “Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, and Dar Es Salaam” on “Step” and making jokes like “Irish and proud baby naturally, but you’ve got the luck of a Kennedy” on “Diane Young” (itself being worldplay of ‘dying young’). They also sing about religion on tracks like the insanely catchy “Unbelievers” and the peppy “Ya Hey” (a wordplay of Yahweh), showing their pop sounds have some depth. Again, this wasn’t an album that I listened to thinking “A++ 10/10 Album of the Year,” yet nothing else in 2013 managed to match or beat Modern Vampires of the City.
Standout Tracks: Unbelievers, Step,Diane Young, Ya Hey